6 essential rules for managing virtual employees… not much different than managing face-to-face (see for yourself!)
All the best books on managing virtual teams share best practices that make common sense (1). Among these, the following points most often emerge:
- Consistency: Clarify ambiguities to create productive working conditions (avoid having people work in multiple teams, do not give a team goals without giving them the means to achieve them, for example.)
- Vision: The importance of making the work meaningful, by defining how it contributes to the bigger picture to give perspective to the employees’ daily work requirements.
- Routines: Scheduling regular individual and group meetings with team members.
- Motivation: The importance of investing in quality relationships to prevent feelings of isolation. It also helps the employees feel valued and important so they are motivated to fully invest themselves.
- Empowerment: Empowering employees to achieve results, especially because it is impossible to manage them by being on their backs all the time.
- Feedback: The importance of providing feedback to share positive and corrective perceptions about completed work is an indispensible requirement to move forward together for the rest of the collaboration.
Note that these recommendations are all equally valid when managing face-to-face. The difference between managing virtually and managing face-to-face seems to be more of a matter of emphasis or intensity….
Experience demonstrates that this transposition is not so easily done from a distance (does that remind you of something?)
For anyone who takes over a virtual team for the first time, the transposition of face-to-face management experience to manage a dispersed team is not so easy…even for the most experienced managers!
When I don’t see my employees everyday, I am quickly faced with the following challenges:
- Blind management: It is more difficult to get to know them, to identify their challenges and even their sensitivities. It is also more difficult to adapt your speech. In all managerial relationships, “mutual taming” requires an implicit understanding of everything about the manager’s needs and expectations, and a way to interpret his/her moods. In this regard, the virtual employee is just as blind as his/her manager!
- At the mercy of technology: The means of communication can take on an exaggerated importance. We easily become at the mercy of technology: a team member’s simple connection problems can reduce or negate the preparation for an entire meeting (developed following best practices!)
- Loss of control: It is also difficult to control work quality and to properly monitor it on a daily basis to ensure progress is being made…as a manager it is not uncommon to be disappointed with the deliverables. In retrospect, I can also see how my instructions were not without blame either…any confusion, any uncertainty can cause discrepancies that are more difficult to correct remotely between two virtual meetings.
- Little initiative taken for the benefit of the group: Working remotely does indeed facilitate freedom in personal organisation but does not necessarily encourage employees to take initiative outside of the framework (for the group’s benefit, for example). The employee will often have the tendency to think that they do not have all of the tools necessary to take initiative and that he/she may produce superfluous or unnecessary work.
As much as virtual management theory seems rather obvious to us, practicing it proves to be difficult!
A fundamental difference in virtual relationships: the dynamic of trust!
What is the main difference between face-to-face management and virtual management to explain these challenges? It’s the “dynamic of trust”. Where does trust come from? How is it generated and developed within both the face-to-face and virtual contexts?
Trust in face-to-face relationships: the emotional component comes first!
Studies show that in face-to-face meetings, the physical and non-verbal criteria have a primary impact in how we place our trust (2), even though we think about our choices and place our trust in a completely rational way. Everything plays out in the first few minutes. The unconscious assumptions that we form will then be tested in everyday work life.
Creating trust virtually requires the reverse order of criteria: rational before emotional!
In virtual relationships, trust comes first. Trusting someone remote can give the sensation of jumping into a void without a parachute…
Virtual teams only work when all team members are on an equal footing, when they have all the tools required to advance, suggest, and make decisions. This requires a strong investment in creating a trusting bond. On the other hand, distance puts a strain on trust: the awkwardness of terse, incomplete communication raises doubts about the manager’s kindness. The positive interpretation of messages is often first a matter of trust. Trust emerges as an even more fundamental characteristic of virtual working relationships.
But, precisely, when working virtually, the emotional component (implied but very important in face-to-face relationships) is hindered by weaker perception. We are therefore in “interrogation mode” more often. We experience a kind of indecision as to whether we choose to place our trust or not; doubting is then our default mode (and it can last quite a bit).
The rational criteria of “verifiability” and proof then take on a greater importance: punctuality, the quality of deliverables submitted, the ability to provide feedback and to consider others’ constraints… Trust is then created in and through work. And as long as it is not created, nothing really works.
This small change causes quite a stir in the dynamics of virtual teamwork. To think that a virtual team is immediately operational and focussed on the goals is simply a mistaken perspective. In virtual teams, this apparently immediate focus on the content and task at hand actually responds to a first stage of mutual observation and expectation within the team. The manager would be remiss to take it for granted…
A manager who takes over a virtual team must always keep in mind that creating trust requires a real investment: patience, consistency and…time!
(1) See, for example, the classic Virtual Team Success, by Darleen Derosa and Richard Lepsinger.